Can Rossi become an IndyCar title fighter again at AMSP?

Alexander Rossi scored eight wins in seven years at Andretti Autosport – a lower ratio than any of us expected. Now he could be on the brink of a rebirth at Arrow McLaren SP. He spoke to David Malsher-Lopez.

Can Rossi become an IndyCar title fighter again at AMSP?
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There’s something about Alexander Rossi that suggests that moving to Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet is already doing him good. His once languid air and occasionally insouciant replies have all but disappeared. It’s like he’s gained a couple of tenths through sheer enthusiasm for his new role: he looks and sounds genuinely eager.

The change has probably broadened his vista, so he knows 2023 is going to be a voyage of discovery, rather than a retread of his own tracks. The last seven years spent at Andretti Autosport-Honda taught Rossi to expect to be very strong on street tracks, to shine at some of the road courses, to run midfield on most ovals and sparkle at the Indy 500. Extracting the most from the car on the bad days was going to define whether he had a championship hope.

Twice he did – 2018 and ’19 – and he finished second and third respectively in the end of season points table. But his second win of ’19, at Road America in 2019, would be his last for three years. Only this past summer was he able to return to the center step of the podium, on the Indianapolis road course, and long before then, his mind was made up and the announcement had been made: he would be departing Michael Andretti’s team to join Arrow McLaren SP.

Speaking before this deal had been revealed, in the run-up to this year’s Indianapolis 500, Rossi told Motorsport.com: “I want to win the championship. It’s all about the championship for me. The Indy 500 is awesome, it’s great, but the biggest motivation for me on Sunday is the chance to gain double points.”

The 2016 Indy 500 winner finished fifth at the Speedway that weekend, and the three cars immediately ahead of him were the Arrow McLaren SPs of his new teammates Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, split by the Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda of Tony Kanaan, who will be joining the team for his 22nd Indy 500 start next May. Rossi’s view has barely shifted since that conversation in late May.

“I don’t honestly think my chances in the Indy 500 each year was in my decision-making process,” he says. “That said, there always seems to be an ebb and flow between the manufacturers at Indy and it’s been Honda-dominated for the last three years. So it’s probably pretty good timing to be moving to the other side because it goes in those three- or four-year cycles.

“But it’s the trajectory that Arrow McLaren SP has been on the last 18 to 24 months, and the runway they still have available to them in terms of resource and rate of progression, that is quite remarkable and probably only really rivaled by Ganassi. I think the upward trend and the potential that we have to not only score results right away but also continue getting better as the months and years go on is really exciting, and was a huge factor in my decision to join Arrow McLaren.”

Rossi already had the kernel of a relationship with McLaren CEO Zak Brown after his one-off ride with friend James Hinchcliffe in the Walkinshaw Andretti United Holden V8 Supercars team in the 2019 Bathurst 1000, Brown being the co-founder of United Autosports, one of the principal shareholders in WAU. But Rossi’s move to AMSP wasn’t a case of leaning on a fleeting contact from a few years earlier: it was founded in pragmatism, having noted that aforementioned trajectory of the squad.

“I have a huge amount of respect for what Zak has done on the Formula 1 side,” he comments, “and I think that speaks for itself as far as knowing how to put the right people in place. A team that was struggling has moved forward to have some of their best seasons of late. Obviously this year it’s been different with the rule changes but still, Zak has been part of the upward swing of McLaren F1.

“I got to know him a little through his friendship with Michael Andretti and the V8 Supercars stuff, but when he called and expressed interest, he also explained what they were doing in terms of hiring – Gavin Ward [ex-Penske race engineer] was coming onboard. They were already having good results without all these people in place, so couple that with the resources that McLaren have in England, and the integration I’ve seen between the F1 team and IndyCar team – that’s a huge braintrust – and it was an extremely attractive proposition.”

Changing teams in this instance means altering engine suppliers, and given that Honda held Rossi in extremely high regard – HPD’s financial contribution was crucial in oiling the wheels in his last Andretti deal – it’s quite jarring to imagine Rossi with the Chevrolet bowtie on his firesuit in 2023. As well as his IndyCar commitments, he raced HPD’s Acura ARX-05 in IMSA’s endurance races – two years for Penske, two for Wayne Taylor Racing – and won the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona in 2021. That was the same year he ran the Baja 1000 for the third time in a Honda Ridgeline and nailed Class 7 victory.

But Rossi is quite open in admitting that times have changed at HPD, that there are no longer any “favored sons”, and so he felt ambivalence rather than guilt about shifting across to Chevy.

He says: “There was emotional attachment with Honda, we accomplished quite a lot together outside of IndyCar as well, and to be able to have the time and experiences with so many different aspects of HPD, whether that was on the IndyCar side, the IMSA side, the off-road side, was very important to me. I also worked with a lot of different iterations of who was in charge – from Art St. Cyr to Ted Klaus to [current president] David Salters. That was the hard part – there were people there, people still there, who are friends of mine, so saying goodbye was challenging, and so Laguna Seca [the IndyCar season finale] was a little bit emotional from that standpoint.

“On the other side, the direction that HPD is going in, in terms of what they do with drivers, is different under David’s leadership. He’s very much from an engineering background, not from the corporate management side of things, so his whole thing is making sure that all the dollars are directed toward the performance of HPD and what they can deliver. The driver support that I’d had from there in the past wasn’t going to be available any more, so that became a non-factor in my decision. So it just became a case of, ‘Do I want to stay part of the Honda family because it’s comfortable and I believe in what they’re doing, or is it OK to branch out because I see that there’s a positive future somewhere else?’”

Having made the decision to move on, the question is whether or not this was the braver option, and right now, that’s impossible to answer. As he has already made clear, Rossi has bought into the idea that even if you ranked Arrow McLaren SP and Andretti Autosport as roughly similar in performance over the past couple of seasons, Michael Andretti’s team has been stuck on the same plateau for several years whereas the squad owned by McLaren, Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson has reached that same level on its way to the very top. Right now, both squads occasionally have the pace to defeat the Penske and Ganassi hordes but have yet to find the consistency – and the ability to improve over the course of a season and/or a race weekend – to be a title threat come the season finale. And don’t go pointing out Pato O’Ward’s title eligibility in the last race of 2021: that was far more mathematical than realistic.

Battling with O'Ward from within the same team may prove to be a very different prospect for Rossi.

Battling with O'Ward from within the same team may prove to be a very different prospect for Rossi.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Speaking of O’Ward, Rossi’s choice of new team certainly proves he remains 100 percent confident in his own ability when it comes to comparisons with teammates. Since 2019, he faced stiff opposition from within Andretti’s ranks in the form of Colton Herta, seven-and-a-half years his junior. In their four seasons together in comparable equipment, Rossi proved he could match and occasionally beat the younger man. But more often than not it was Herta in front and his momentum snowballed, so that student became master in the same way that a few years earlier Rossi supplanted Ryan Hunter-Reay as de facto Andretti Autosport team leader.

In Rossi’s defense, it must be pointed out that he suffered some truly wretched luck in this period, and he didn’t let it affect him in the same way it does many of his rivals, who consciously or subconsciously switch to conservative mode to regain points and then get mired in the pack. His commitment remained absolute and he eventually gave the impression of a man unfazed by Herta often being ahead in qualifying, feeling sure he could match him for race pace. But there were occasions in this period when one questioned Rossi’s composure, for he made some unexpected errors while running in prominent positions.

Now he joins a team that Pato O’Ward has pretty much made his own over the last three years – that’s the O’Ward who in Indy Lights proved of similar caliber to Herta and was arguably superior at that time. Rosenqvist, too, is an ace-in-waiting. So despite having eight IndyCar wins to his name, Rossi knows that his reputation hangs in the balance in 2023 as much as it ever has done in his career. Yet he insists he is not daunted. Perhaps his confidence is bolstered by knowing he’ll have Craig Hampson as his race engineer.

“I don’t care [about teammates],” he says, “you’ve got to beat everyone, right? Yes, Craig was pivotal in terms of my decision to come over, just because of a) his pedigree, and b) I worked with him at Andretti. I also feel like his engineering methods and styles are similar to those of Jeremy [Milless, Rossi’s race engineer at AA] who I had a really positive relationship with.

Rossi's Indianapolis road course win this year was his eighth IndyCar triumph but his first in more than three years.

Rossi's Indianapolis road course win this year was his eighth IndyCar triumph but his first in more than three years.

Photo by: Geoff Miller / Motorsport Images

“Regarding the teammate dynamic, you can’t be intimidated by anyone in this sport… although maybe it would be a little different if my teammate was Scott Dixon who’s won six championships! Otherwise, Pato is just another race winner but also someone who has matured a lot. I mean, I learned a lot from Colton, even though he is seven years younger than me. He came into a team that was very much built around Ryan and myself, and obviously had a really positive impact.

“I want to do the same at Arrow McLaren SP. I have a lot of experience in the series and have driven for a team that has accomplished a lot but definitely has different approaches and methodologies of doing the same thing. Being able to bring that to an organization that is already achieving so much, and that also has Pato and Felix, is only going to make the three of us stronger.”

For the first two-thirds of 2021, only one AMSP driver was flourishing away from the ovals. AMSP had followed an F1-style “qualifying is all”-type philosophy and had an extremely pointy, on-the-nose car for road and street courses that rapidly warmed up its tires. That suited O’Ward just fine in qualifying because his steering inputs and reactions make it appear as if his steering wheel rim comprises a high-voltage electric eel. But that car behavior knocked a couple of percentage points out of Rosenqvist’s confidence since he prefers more neutral handling. And, come raceday, the setup would ultimately harm both cars because they burned through tires faster than their principal rivals. For ’22, the AMSP cars were tamed, improving Rosenqvist’s performances while not appearing to harm O’Ward’s. Rossi, who will take part in his first sim test for AMSP today, Friday, says he’s ready for whatever comes his way, and also believes he can contribute a great deal to the team, given his experience with the ageing DW12 through its various guises.

“I think I’ve tried them all and I’ve definitely found something I’m happy with in this generation of universal aerokit along with the aeroscreen,” he says. “I can bring that into the team immediately and we can compare and contrast. In the past there have been areas where they were significantly better than Andretti cars, and areas where Andretti was better than Arrow McLaren. So I don’t think a team’s setup philosophy is a reason to go or not go to a team. It’s more about the people there and being able to all get on the same page quickly and build a car that works for you.

“And I think a huge amount of the progress that Felix saw and the team saw in 2022 was down to Chevrolet. Chevy made a really big step forward last season, and if you were to say that an Arrow McLaren car was pretty pointy and hard on its tires in 2021, it might still be that way but the driveability of the engine was so much improved in ’22 that it’s not as big a detriment. A big part of the improvement we saw from Arrow McLaren this year was down to Chevy, and that was partly due to the addition of Ray Gosselin [Ryan Hunter-Reay’s former race engineer] and the knowledge he brought from Andretti and Honda.”

Nonetheless, O’Ward and Rosenqvist were seventh and eighth in the championship this season past, which, according to the points table, was dominated by Penske and Ganassi. In the previous two years O’Ward had finished fourth and third respectively. Asked what he brings to the AMSP table for 2023, and Rossi self-deprecatingly points out that any team is “better off the more cars they have out there” and in a similar vein points out that his new team “was beating me pretty handily, and this year both Arrow McLarens beat the #27 [Rossi] and the #26 [Herta].”

He continues: “I think what I bring is experience and also the fact that I came from a group of four to six [including AA’s technical allies Meyer Shank Racing] to seven [at Indy 500, Marco Andretti was added to the AA roster] and so I was able to see a huge amount of trial and error. So I feel coming into this team that if we go to the first test and they say, ‘Here are the three or four things that we really don’t know about’, I’m hoping I can cut down the theorizing by maybe half if I’ve seen one or two of the theories tried out before. I can say, ‘No, I saw this with Helio [Castroneves] or Simon [Pagenaud] or Colton, and it didn’t work, so let’s go in this other direction instead.’

“That’s going to be cool. As soon as I get into an Arrow McLaren for the first time, it’s going to be so clear what are the good things about it and where its deficiencies are, because the only IndyCar I’ve ever known has been an Andretti Autosport-Honda. So it’s going to be night-and-day clear – ‘That’s OK, we don’t need to touch it,’ and, ‘This is not so good, let’s focus on this area.’ That type of knowledge will be my biggest attribute, at least at the beginning.”

Rossi always runs well at the Speedway, but repeating his 500 victory is less of a priority to him than clinching that first IndyCar championship.

Rossi always runs well at the Speedway, but repeating his 500 victory is less of a priority to him than clinching that first IndyCar championship.

Photo by: IndyCar Series

What happens thereafter is anyone’s guess. At least as fascinating as how Kyle Kirkwood develops as Rossi’s replacement at Andretti Autosport will be watching how Rossi adapts to his new environment and how O’Ward and Rosenqvist respond to his arrival at Arrow McLaren SP. But despite just two preseason tests, Rossi is confident he can restore his status as a championship contender in 2023, which means hitting the ground running at St. Petersburg in March.

“Yeah, that’s the whole point of changing teams,” he says. “What we have in our favor is that the cars aren’t changing this year, so despite there being only a couple of days of testing, I’m relieved that the hybrids aren’t coming in until 2024, so we can hit the ground running without having to learn a whole new drivetrain system.”

The man who delivered that brilliant win at Watkins Glen in 2017, that stirring drive from the back of the field and a lap down to third at Phoenix in 2018 (on a track where it was supposedly impossible to pass) and those qualifying laps on raceday that resulted in a runner-up finish at Detroit last season is still there and ready to fight. The driver who could also dominate at Long Beach or Road America is still there, too, ready to take command of a race.

If the 2023 season sees both these sides of Rossi the racer, it will indicate that Arrow McLaren SP has the right car for him, at which point he should emerge as a championship contender once more.

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